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Divided by a common language
  1. I D Wacogne
  1. Dr Wacogne was on secondment at the Royal Children’s Hospital, Brisbane for two years and is now a locum consultant in general paediatrics at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, UK

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George Bernard Shaw once remarked that the UK and the USA were two countries divided by a common language. This helped emphasise what was already well underway in the eighteenth century when Johnson and Webster wrote their separate dictionaries with different spellings and some different meanings.

What is less obvious to us Poms is that Australians speak a different language—sometimes known as Strine, from the local pronunciation of “Australian”. As an outsider you assume that Strine is the same as English English (hereafter referred to as English with no parochialism intended) at your peril. Strine is rich with idiom, littered with abbreviation, includes both ancient English and neologism, and is riddled with potential misunderstanding for the unsuspecting Pom. Remember, too, that the television soap opera Neighbours is owned by a British company and is watched by the numerical equivalent of half the Australian population in the UK. This makes it pretty Anglicised and therefore fairly poor as a linguistic primer.

A good idiom will always confuse the outsider at first, and have a mix of poetry, precision, and aptness. It is fairly easy to see how someone could be “madder than a cut snake,” although the madder is bent from angry to insane in this case. Quite why someone should be “uglier than a hat full of [bottoms]” (word replaced to avoid causing offence) is obscure. Some require long and specific explanation—like the taxi drivers who need the whole journey to explain the threat of rain described as “A Bogan shower”, meaning a derisory light shower characterised by “a puff of dust and three drops of rain.” I’m not sure that this one would enter common use in the UK.

In Strine, any word of three syllables or more—sometimes fewer—can be abbreviated and usually suffixed with either “o” or “ie”. Thus, we know from Arvo, meaning afternoon, from Neighbours. There is also Ambo, for ambulance driver; Firie, for fireman or woman; Salvo for Salvation army, and so on. This, oddly, can also extend words; thus a break for a smoke becomes a smoko. Another odd thing: while I’m referring to a thingy, my Australian colleagues refer to a thingo—which can represent a person as well as an object.

Rort is a n excellent word to describe a con or swindle. Thus the headline “Pollie [Politician] in Tax Rort” manages to convey a degree of indignation and nefariousness that the English equivalent cannot. Apparently it can also refer to a wild party. A furfy or furphy is also a con, but is more sleight of hand by devious thinking perhaps. It can sometimes mean an unfounded rumour. A professor had me believing (for at least five seconds) that the word had originated with Dr Nicholas Furfy who liked to spin yarns on his ward rounds, until I realised, from the glint in her eyes, that this was itself a furfy.

The misunderstandings come thick and fast for a pom fresh off the plane. The signs outside a pub saying “Pokies” and “No Thongs” are a lot less seedy when you understand that pokies are poker machines or slot machines, and that Strine thongs are flip-flops or sandals, rather than G-strings. The pub is therefore one with gambling and a dress code, rather than a brothel. Similarly the colleague who mentioned in passing that she felt “like a shag on a rock” needed to explain that a shag is a cormorant-like bird which fishes from exposed seaside places, and that she was therefore expressing a feeling of extreme exposure rather than a desire for uncomfortable congress. Good thing really.

Strine is spoken by all tiers of Australian society, insofar as there are tiers. For example, a senior Pollie would be expected to refer to ambos and pokies—the latter in fact a quite important political issue—in just the same way that he or she would be expected to ride in the front passenger seat of a taxi if alone. Anything else would be seen as acting in a superior way—and Australians love a tall poppy (imagine a naughty boy swishing a stick at flowers: which one will he go for?). A newsreader would talk of rorts and pokies. They would also talk about someone being bashed (mugged) by hoons (hooligans). I’m relieved to say, however, that I never heard them talking about shags on rocks.